Development of virtual education
DR. GLEN M. FARRELL
Provision for education will be the biggest challenge for most governments as they attempt to attain the ideals of peace, freedom, and social justice, while striving at the same time to position themselves to generate more wealth and compete in the free global market. Bold steps have to be considered by states to provide their people with affordable access to education; using methods of mass education will be inevitable. Even by using these methods, not all aspirations will be met. Intervention by outside agencies is one solution, but it will come at a higher cost than most individuals in the developing parts of the world can afford. One solution available for Governments of the Commonwealth is to use the newer technologies as vehicles to bring a variety of educational opportunities to individuals in their respective countries. The knowledge, skills and a significant part of the infrastructure to create a virtual campus seems to be there in many jurisdictions but little is known of the what, why, and how of such operations. (From A Proposal to Study Trends in the Virtual Delivery of Education, presented to the U.K. Department of International Development) With that rationale, the Commonwealth of Learning proposed to the United Kingdom Department for International Development that a comprehensive study be made of the global state of practice globally of virtual education in schools and on campuses in order to achieve the following:
Get a snapshot picture of what is being done by whom and where.
Study the potential impact of such initiatives on a range of current practices.
Provide Commonwealth Governments with information relating to technology and telecommunication infrastructure as well as financial and human resource needs for setting up virtual learning facilities.
Enable existing distance education providers of the Commonwealth to rengineer themselves to benefit from this emerging option.
Review protocols and other administrative arrangements for awarding credits and credentials under special circumstances through Commonwealth co-operation in virtuality. The Department for International Development agreed to fund the study and work began in September 1998.
Process and Methodology The study is intended to provide a global snapshot of the state and practice of virtual education. It is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of all virtual education initiatives. It should be seen as illustrative, based on the knowledge and perceptions of the individual members of the study team. We also see this as a work in progress because the interest and activity in the concept we have called virtual education is extremely dynamic. The Commonwealth of Learning identified 10 global regions and commissioned an individual in each region to write a paper describing, from his or her perspective, the state of practice of virtual education in that region. Study team members were selected on the basis of their known interest, expertise, and experience in the development of virtual education strategies and models. The regional reports were completed in February 1999, and the study group convened during the first week of March in Brunei Darrusalam during the Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning to review regional developments and synthesise a global perspective. The first task of the study team was to define the study parameters and agree on a working definition of virtual education (see Framework for Regional Reports in Appendix 1.1). This was a difficult task, and the definition initially agreed upon is admittedly broad. Making it more precise would have meant excluding a great deal of current practice that involves some exciting and creative use of information and communication technologies. Having now gone through the exercise of applying the definition, we have concluded that it remains a useful way to conceptualise the notion of virtual education. As development takes place, the definition may become more focused on those teaching and learning interactions mediated entirely through the application of information and communication technologies. At this stage, however, there are very few examples where that is the case. Within the Framework team members were encouraged to develop their reports to reflect the context of virtual education development in their regions. Some of the reports focus on the state of information and communication technology infrastructure development in the region, while others (those where the infrastructure is readily available), provide examples of practice and discuss the related issues. Some team members, because of the size and complexity of their assigned regions and the lack of access to electronic data-gathering capacity, were compromised in their ability to make their reports as comprehensive as they would have wished. (Note: Throughout this publication, universal resource locators (URLs) are included to permit readers to pursue additional information on sites and topics referenced. These URLs are valid Internet addresses as of March 1999.
Due to the nature of the World Wide Web and the restructuring of home pages by Web masters, the addresses might change by the time readers try to access the referenced sites. If you get an "Error 404" or "Invalid Location" message when you try to access a site, try removing the last part of the address to at least get to the home page of the host organisation.) General Observations The 10 regional reports reflect, not surprisingly, a great deal of variation in the stage of development of virtual models of education. Taken together, however, they do provide a world view from which the study team has distilled the following observations:
• The label virtual is widely and indiscriminately used around the world. Indeed, it is frequently used interchangeably with other labels such as open and distance learning, distributed learning, tworked learning, Web-based learning, and computer learning. Furthermore, it is used in some regions to refer to systems that combine broadcast and interactive teleconferencing technologies that operate in real time. With such broad use of the term, you need to know what the information and communication technology applications are in order to know what virtual education means in any given context.
• In spite of the increased use of the term virtual, there are very few examples of institutions using information and communication technologies to carry out all the functions included in our definition. The most common applications of information and communication technologies are found in administration, materials development and distribution, and where possible, student tuition in the form of student-student and student-tutor interaction.
• While there are still few examples of virtual institutions in the purest sense, the amount of development activity in all types and levels of educational organisations, both public and private, is considerable in all parts of the world. No one seems to doubt that the development and deployment of information and communication technologies will have a profound impact on access, institutional functioning, and the teaching and learning process. However, teachers and administrators have many questions and concerns (see the section below, The Global Context of Virtual Institution Development).
• The development of virtual institutions is still experimental, rather unfocused, and not necessarily matched to clientele learning needs. While there are some exceptions (e.g., the programmes offered in Communications Studies at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand), generally the applications of information and communication technologies tend to be unsophisticated. Commonly, for example, the World Wide Web is used by institutions simply as a publishing medium without addressing the interactive potential of the technology. This may be because little attention seems to be paid to the importance of staff retraining and development.
• There are some remarkable examples of the transformation that can take place when a vision for an educational system is developed and its implementation championed by decisionmakers. Perhaps the clearest examples are the initiatives that have been taken in Korea (see Appendix 9.1 in Virtual Institutions in East and Southeast Asia).